My Bride and I try to take a trip every month to do something that is, well, a little out of the ordinary. Always feeling completely at home can lead to stagnation. So we’ve vowed to do something to “shake it up” a little, lest we get too overwhelmed by commitments, chores, family, work…or inertia. (Of these, I think inertia is the most insidious, but that’s another blog.)
Accordingly, this past weekend, we sped up to Cleveland, Tennessee for the Sand Hill Crane Festival. Every year around this time, migrating Sand Hill Cranes stop at the nearby Hiawassee Nature Refuge. The birds themselves are magnificent looking creatures: nearly four feet high, with a wingspan approaching six feet, they are an imposing bird on the ground or in flight. Adults are grey, with white cheeks and capped with a spot of red…very distinctive and easy to spot.
It’s their call that, I think, is the most impressive. Some call it a honk, others a rattle…to me it is the primordial shriek of Creation. To hear a thousand of these birds crying in unison is to feel the salt water in our own veins, to squish the Neolithic mud between our toes.
But perhaps the most extraordinary part of the entire experience is the birdwatchers themselves. People come from all over the country to get a glimpse of these birds in Tennessee. We’ve met people from New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin, to name a few. And while my Bride and I are viewed with suspicion by our friends as being “way out there” as birders go, we are reminded from time to time that we really don’t even show up, compared to serious birders.
Saturday night we enjoyed an event dinner, where we met a delightful couple from Kentucky. The entertainment was a character actor performing as Charles Darwin. He recounted – storyteller-style – the voyage of the HMS Beagle around the world.
Let’s face it. It was a nerdfest. Of the first order and magnitude. Even scarier…my Bride and I felt right at home. If our kids could only see us now!
On Sunday, Nerd-dom kicked into high gear. We joined the phalanx of spotting scopes, tripods, gear bags and mega-dollar photography equipment packed tightly against the viewing area cordon, jostling for the best perch to capture a glimpse or photos of these Cranes. While we were getting set up, we overheard someone behind us announce, “Just above the tree line, there are two immature Bald Eagles going talon to talon.”
Really? Bald Eagles? Plural? Here?
But when I pulled my binoculars to my face, all I could see were distant winged specks, crisscrossing the sky about a half-mile away. How could the High Nerd Announcer decipher what those specks are? For all I knew, it could be a couple of amorous crows! And seconds later…“In that thicket just above the shoreline, there’s a Northern Harrier hunting for field mice.” No kidding? I could see a white-rumped hawk-like bird bouncing around on the ground, but I couldn’t have told you if it was a Harrier, a hawk or a falcon. I just came to see the Cranes!!!!
Clearly, we were in the deep end of the Birder Pool. It’s a humbling experience to come to the realization that, in a covey of true Nerds, you don’t measure up. I’m still mulling over whether that’s a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.
The upside is, as with any pursuit, that when you surround yourself with people that are better than you are, your skills, experience and enjoyment increase. So it was with this weekend. We saw fifteen different bird species, one of which we hadn’t seen (or at least identified!) before. Surrounded with like-minded individuals, it was comforting to wallow in the far corner of the Nerd Dark Side, wearing rubber mud boots and ungainly hats and talking about field markings of one bird or another. And feeling completely at home.
Hmmm…how is it that we ventured out to avoid feeling that comfortable, but ended up actually feeling that comfortable?
Guess it’s true…birds of a feather…